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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

WDFM - The Evolution of Mickey Mouse

Since I’ve seen a number of threads on various fan forums about a new talking Mickey being testing at Disneyland, I figured it was time to get this piece finished and posted.

In November, the Walt Disney Family Museum welcomed Walt Disney Company Executive Vincent Vedrenne to the Museum to talk about the “Evolution of Mickey Mouse.”

The session opened with Museum Executive Director, Richard Benefield telling us that Mickey Mouse was about to turn 82, and that the first Mickey cartoon showed on November, 18th 1928.  As Richard is telling us just how important Mickey is to the Museum, and about a potential symposium on him (that would be so cool) and how much Mickey has been study during his life, he showed us a copy of Natural History magazine from 1979, with a picture of Mickey on the cover.  The magazine contained an article from, as Richard described him, “rock star” scientist Stephen Jay Gould, discussing Mickey Mouse’s neotenic features.  Where else are you going to be challenged with terms like neotenic or neoteny?  Okay since it was hard to write fast enough to capture Richard’s definition, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:

Neoteny (pronounced /niːˈɒtɨniː/), also called juvenilization, is the retention, by adults in a species, of traits previously seen only in juveniles (a kind of pedomorphosis), and is a subject studied in the field of developmental biology. In neoteny, the physiological (or somatic) development of an animal or organism is slowed or delayed (fallaciously, seen as a dilation of biological time). Ultimately this process results in the retention, in the adults of a species, of juvenile physical characteristics well into maturity. The English word neoteny is borrowed from the German Neotenie, the latter constructed from the Greek νέος (young) and τείνειν (tend to). The standard adjectival form is "neotenous",[2] although "neotenic" is often used.

Who knew?  Well, I guess Stephen Jay Gould knew, and he made the association with Mickey Mouse.  I really do learn something new every day, and Richard went on to introduce our guest speaker: Vincent Vedrenne is a Walt Disney Company vice president in Corporate Franchise Management, overseeing the business and creative strategy of Disney’s core character franchises; Mickey, Pooh, Princesses, Fairies, and Cars, and responsible for creating consistent business strategies for the promotion of Disney’s most beloved characters.  Vincent has been tasked, by Bob Iger and John Lassiter, to focus on optimizing and protecting, as he puts it, “the world’s most beloved characters.

Vincent opened by telling us that Mickey Mouse was an almost instance success.  His name appearing on movie house billboards in lettering as big as the feature films.  The Disney Brothers Studio received 1000’s of fan letters within the first three week.  And that Mickey Mouse was not just a big hit in the USA, but a worldwide phenomenon.  Mickey is probably one of the most studied animated characters in our culture; academia is still trying to understand his appeal, with no one theory winning out. After watching all 346 cartoon shorts, Vincent has some of his own theories, and broke down the periods in the development of Mickey Mouse.

Our first period of examination Vincent called, Mouse gags – 1928 to 1942 – 87 Shorts were produced.

During this period Mickey was the primary subject of these shorts, with appearance and interaction with Minnie and Pluto.  Two of the shorts mentioned were Steamboat Willie and Plane Crazy.  Mickey smoked, drank, and, as Vincent put it, brutalized animals.  These were acceptable activities during this period in our history.  We got to see some of the examples of cartoons from this period.  Vincent explained that Mickey Mouse in “Steamboat” Willie was modeled (as Walt wanted) after Charlie Chaplin, whereas Mickey in “Plane Crazy” was modeled (by Ub Iwerks) after Douglas Fairbanks.  Ultimately Walt’s Charlie Chaplin model won out.

Next we move to the Comic Trio period of 1936 to 1940, where 16 shorts were produced.

Here with so many other Mickey Mouse shorts done, to broaden available subject material and keep the audience engage, Donald Duck and Goofy were created.  Both characters were alter egos of Mickey’s former self, Donald being the tantrum throwing, angry little rascal, and Goofy the personification of ignorant bliss.  To demonstrate this interaction we got to see a clip from 1938’s “Mickey’s Trailer”

In 1939 the studio started making character specific cartoons, and from 1939 to 1953 Mickey got another 14 shorts. During this period Donald became very popular and from 1939 to 1956 he got 135 shorts of his own, with Goofy getting 23 shorts from 1941 to 1953, which Vincent called Goofy’s Lessons and 16 shorts from 1951 to 1953 he called Goofy the Family Man.  Interesting note from the Goofy’s lessons period, we learned that during the production of these shorts, the voice actor (Pinto Colvig from my research) for Goofy had left the studio.  Without the voice for Goofy, Disney decided to use Goofy as the subject of these lessons while using a narrator to explain what was happening.  Finally from 1937 to 1951 we see 55 short produced which Vincent called Pluto’s Misadventures.

We learned that the last Mickey Mouse cartoon was short was made in 1953, and another interesting fact was revealed by Mr. Vedrenne.  The studio stopped regular production of cartoon shorts because the theaters stopped paying for them.  Theater owners and distributors felt that audiences were now coming for the main features and not the shorts, so they discontinued paying for the shorts.  If the studios wanted to include shorts as a bonus feature, that was fine.  Without a revenue source, there was no incentive to produce new shorts.  Disney also released they had a large library which they could begin to recycle.  So with the exception of “The Prince and the Pauper” in 1990 and a “Runaway Brain” in 1995 there has been little Mickey Mouse production in the last 30 years.

Disney (the company) understands the value of Mickey and his friends, hence Mr. Vedrenne’s position at the company, and is looking at how to address the desire from the fans to see more of these characters today.  One of the things they are doing to address this desire, is to repackage the Disney character cartoon in a program called “Have a Laugh” the first two DVD’s have been released (yes, they are already in my collection), and the “Have a Laugh” cartoons have started running in-between popular show on the Disney Channel.   Disney has found that for most viewers today, they lose interest after about three to 4 minute.  So the “Have a Laugh” shorts on the Disney Channel have been edited down to about three minutes.  On the DVD’s both the shortened and original versions of the shorts are included.  It is very cool!

And finally, the reason I decided to finish this one up.  As I opened, there has been a bit of post traffic on several of the fan forums about the new talking Mickey at the Disneyland Park.  They have been testing a new articulated Mickey head which is also able to talk in Mickey’s voice.  We got to see a little 3 minute video of one of the test sessions.  What appeared to be a toddler of about 3 or 4 went rushing up to Mickey as he welcomed him verbally.  The smile from the child was ear-to-ear, but the look on the mother’s face was priceless! 

I think we have a lot to look forward during our future trips to the Parks.

And I’m always anticipating my time at the Museum!

Your comments or questions are always welcome.  If you have a correction or something you think I should look at in my research, please feel free to contact me at


  1. You should edit this! There are lots of errors- most probably typographical, so it would be easy to correct a lot of them.

  2. Thank Anonymous. Edits are in process. One of the challenges of being a one-person operation is that I have to be my own editor, so I miss alot since I know what I wanted to say and often see it as that when I re-read.

    But, Thanks Again, I really do appreciate it.